The Civil War caused turmoil and upheaval that affected every strand of life in England. It challenged and upturned the deeply ingrained feudal system with a Monarch as the head of all moral, spiritual and governmental life, and moved thought and order towards new democratic ideas and systems of rule. This period saw a new experimentation in ideas and attitudes among the population, which was not welcomed by many.
As Christopher Hill writes “What was new in the 17 centaury was the idea that the world might be permanently turned upside down”.In the wake of Charles’s regicide there was a “popular mid-seventeenth-centaury belief that the establishment of a prefect society was imminent” (coward). Many radical movements, from the Levellers to the 5th monarchists flourished, posing a threat to traditional conformist ideas on political, social and religious aspects, which defined many of the boundaries on which the traditional feudal system was based on. This created much controversy among a nation seeking stability, and so this period can be thought of radical in the sense of change.
It is important to be aware just how deeply ingrained the church and the Monarchy was in every day life, both during and after the Civil War. They defined most of the boundaries, and structures of 17th century society, resulting in many radical groups expressing their ideas through religion. Mich Lynch calles religion “the great issue that defined settlement”, or peace in this case.One group challenging this were the “True Levellers” mockingly known as “Diggers:” With beliefs in equality, community and “true religion for all” they argued that land was “a common treasury”.. As. Michel Lynch states: “It was the great issue that defined settlement”, or peace in this case.
One group challenging this were the “True Levellers” mockingly known as “Diggers:” With beliefs in equality, community and “true religion for all” they argued that land was “a common treasury” and lived in communes detached from society. The most famous commune was on St George’s Hill, where common land was taken over by a group numbering around 50 led by Winstanly. Their ideas derived and supported from the Bible were radical in that they directly threatened the gentry and the landowners.
As Michel Lynch states they “. were regarded as an intolerable affront to established rights of property referring to a lifestyle of “sexual promiscuity, heavy drinking and frequent blaspheming”, usurping land laws and ownership. Reactions and accusations followed that they were “Drunk on the Bible”, thus dramatising many aspects of Digger practice. Just how seriously they challenged established order was evident in violent clashes that culminated in their removal under Cromwell’s orders Lynch further poses an interesting idea that “In an exact sense they were communists”. He is suggesting that here may lie the original seeds that led to later Communism.
That the first statue of Winstanly was erected in Russia after Lenin’s consolidation of power shows the extent of their influence in later history and more importantly is evidence of how radical and far reaching their ideas were at that time.Another important splinter group were the Ranters who posed both a religious and a political threat to conformist ideas. They were arguably one of the most radical movements of this period, shown by the many “Yellow Press” articles released about them.
Their beliefs in Antinomianism and Pantheism, where the elect could do no wrong, directly and openly challenged both the church and landowners in a refusal to accept the concept of sin. Ranter Laurence Clarkson declared in “The Ranters Religion”, ” I act.. not in flesh, but the representative of the whole creation: So what I can act ..
I will”.This direct refusal to accept the traditional interpretation of the Bible and so of worship challenged the fundamental foundations on which society was based. They were criticised in: “they’re flouting of social convention” (Lynch).
Their attack on the symbiotic relationship between the different levels of the hierarchical pyramid on which society based itself on was so significantly radical, so off the allowed norm that it angered Cromwell. The Ranters were threatening his arterial method of communication to the masses, as well as his methods for “reformation of manners”. They put into question the power, the structure and the influence of the church.
It is interesting to note that Ranters were seen as a “perceived phenomenon”. They posed such a dangerously radical set of ideas that they were deemed to be an invention of the authorities in an attempt to quell extreme thoughts and practices. Some suggest they were fabricated to warn the population off the dangers of many of these ideas. If this were true, it indicates that radicalism posed a real enough threat to the current authorities. However, there is evidence of their existence in the 1650 Blasphemy Act. Either way, the authorities saw in them a real potential threat not merely to the feudal system, but also to Cromwell, the gentry and the landowners.One of the most interesting and radical groups to emerge out of this period were the Levellers.
Led by John Lilburn they were one of the first urban socialist and working class movements. They believed that everybody was born “equal in majesty”; and thus in a “levelled” society. There is no doubt that their ideas more than actions frightened those in power, especially Cromwell. This is evident in his harsh suppression of revolts within the Army at Ware and Burford. They rejected all inequality, thus also governmental control and held the view in “The basic principal that sovereignty lay not with parliament but with the people”.The amount of time John Lilburn spent incarcerated is evidence of the degree of threat he and his followers posed and also how radical these ideas were in their refusal to acknowledge the established and centralised power base. Yet Austin Woolrych claims “The Levellers were in fact a precociously well organised pressure group, rather than a revolutionary movement”.
To the authorities their ideas were radical enough to install fear. With an estimated following of 800 within the Army and unknown number outside, for Cromwell and others the Levellers could and did disrupt social and civic order. Therefore they must have held significantly extreme ideas and ideals to challenge the current government and its divine right to reform England.The Presbyterians divided England, the Parliament and the Church and were arguably the most influential and radical group.
As one of the many protestant branches in the Church of England they aspired to abolish Bishops, and believed: “members of each parish would elect their own priest or minister” (M + L). This posed a direct threat to the churches own power base and to Cromwell’s need of the Church as an arterial route of influence and communication to and with the population. However the Presbyterians “wanted the country to return to normal as soon as possible”.
Fractions occurred and caused the greatest problem to Cromwell’s motto of: “Liberty of conscience” as one of his four fundamentals.Many of these radical groups took on his motto to new and extreme ideas of worship and thus caught him in a vice of his own making.As if this was not enough, the Quakers were, in M Lynch’s words: “most socially dangerous of all radical groups refusing to pay tithes, frequently disturbing church services”.
Led by George Fox and James Naylor, they believed that faith can only be attained through personal experience, “God within them” and not in a set of prescribed rituals. During 1650s their following attracted huge numbers of over 50000 and “often expressing their beliefs with a vigorous disregard for property.” Their disobedience breached Cromwell’s four fundamentals- liberty of conscience- by publicaly ridiculing other religious practices, including the Puritans. And yet,” Cromwell was not opposed to the Quaker method of worship” as long as it did not disrupt the process of healing and settling. Quakers alongside other groups took a further radical step alongside the reformation of manners, and often came into conflict with the new establishment.These groups developed the ideas born from the Civil War and took them to many excessive and sometimes disruptive extremes, and therefore were hugely significant in the way Cromwell’s Liberty of Conscience and methods of governing developed.He was beginning to lose cohesion in Parliament after 1650s and his hold on the people.
At the same time, he was concerned by the spread of Catholicism within the Royal Court. He made it clear that “Liberty of conscience” was one of his four fundamentals, yet also that this could not be challenged by either Catholics or Presbyterians. He found himself stuck between the idea of freedom of worship basic to his four fundamentals, and the pressures from these splinter groups and sects.
The ideas unleashed by these groups and sects were radical in that they threatened the established Protestant religion and the new models of rule far beyond expectation. They challenged ownership, hierarchies and distribution of faith and land, the challenged the interpretation of the Bible and many other laws, and experimented with new ideas on freedom and civil rights and lifestyles. Some of these came to inform later historical events, such as the Russian and French Revolutions.
They were significant in that they did, be it in conflicting ways, challenge Cromwell’s power and his ideals and posed a real threat to his New Model Army. They were also significant in that they opened the doors to many more possibilities and fresh interpretations on spiritual and civic life.There is little evidence that any of these groups survived after the return of the Monarchy, but many of them exist in some form today.One could conclude that the most radical thought of the time was Cromwell’s “reformation of manners”, which attacked feudal, Crown and Church led structures of government, law and religious worship.
With this he also unleashed an avalanche of further and even more extreme, therefore radical, ideas, many of which soon began to compromise and endanger his vision and the four fundamentals. The attitudes, expectations and change in thinking by Baptists, Presbyterians, Ranters, Quakers etc., help plant the seeds for democratic thought and constitutional Monarchy. This period of the Civil War was particularly significant because it was a time when a great range of experimental interpretations brought the people to question their relationship to God and law, to question the rulers and the ruled.
Although a turbulent and an uncertain time, it certainly was a creative and innovative change in thinking.